Category Archives: Inequality

Interesting practices in the use of ICTs for education


I have all too frequently been asked to suggest examples of “best practice” in the use of ICTs for education, and have always so far resisted.  “Best practices” tend to be promoted by those who wish to assert their pre-eminence in a field, or make considerable sums of money by selling their “solutions”!  I strongly believe that there is no such thing as “one-size-fits-all” in education, and instead I argue that there are numerous good practices from which people can learn and develop their own local and contextualised educational activities using ICTs.

The opportunity recently to do some forward thinking with colleagues in UNICEF about the future use of ICTs in education, especially amongst some of the poorest and most marginalised children in the world, nevertheless provided the chance to reflect on the diversity of different dimensions of education in which ICTs are used, and also to identify examples of each from which we can all learn. The list below is a very attenuated summary of these case studies, drawing explicitly from different parts of the world and in different languages (although English dominates).  They were chosen in part based on the recommendations of colleagues with a wealth of experience working in the field, but the final choice of examples is my own.  Readers might like to add their own favourites as comments!

Visually impaired girl with BrailleEducational content and skills development

The development of different ICTs over the last two decades has led to an explosion of new types of content, and new ways of delivering it, increasingly through the plethora of apps on mobile devices.  Such content varies hugely in quality, in cost, and in the level of learning for which it is intended.

  • The power of multimedia One of the greatest strengths of ICTs is to bring learning to life through a diversity of multimedia resources.  In particular, games, videos and audio can enliven learning, and provide real world examples of how things work that cannot be experienced in schools.  Examples of multimedia include:
  • Re-versioning and localising content One of the benefits of open content is the opportunity that it provides for re-versioning existing content into local contexts.  Examples include:
  • Local content development Demand for local content in schools can also provide the basis for local economic growth in poorer countries of the world.  Examples include
  • Learning platforms for content and skills Content needs to be delivered in an appropriate and appealing format, that is also flexible and easily searchable.  Numerous such platforms have been developed, both for students and teachers.  Examples include:
  • Open and Proprietary Content  Many of the above initiatives are Open, but there are many Proprietary solution also available, especially for richer children.  One example where a government has chosen to purchase licences for proprietary content and make it available for free to its citizens is:
  • Teaching the skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity  Some ICT-based initiatives have focused on new ways to develop the basic skills such as literacy and numeracy that are required building blocks for the more advanced skills of communication and creativity.  Examples include:
  • Assistive technologies enabling children with disabilities and special needs to access content About half of the world’s children with disabilities are out of school.  These are some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged children in the world, and yet have the most to gain from assistive technologies.  Examples include:

Pedagogy and the practice of teaching

Shuang Bai TTS computer labThe role of the private sector has been substantial in disseminating new ICT-based teaching practices. For many years, ICT corporations such as Microsoft and Intel have provided basic courses and training for teachers in how to use digital skills in the classroom.  These have traditionally tended to emphasise training in basic “Office” skills software that can be applied to an educational context.  There are few convincing examples of successful teaching training initiatives that have really inculcated a comprehensive understanding of how the balanced use of ICTs can enhance the delivery of education in the poorest countries of the world.

Digital skills

laptopIn a world increasingly dominated by technology, the successful acquisition of digital skills by young people has become a high priority for many governments and companies.  It is important to differentiate between three broad types of digital skills: the basic skills necessary to use digital technologies; advanced skills specifically in areas such as coding and programming, often linked to an emphasis on the perceived importance of increasing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education; and the skills associated with knowing how to live in an increasingly digital world and to negotiate the challenges of digital technologies as well as their benefits.

Monitoring and evaluation

Unless high quality and appropriate monitoring and Girls school teamevaluation is undertaken on the impact of ICTs on educational outcomes, existing systems will not improve, and the real effects of new interventions will not be known.

Administration

It is widely recognised that the successful use of ICTs in education programmes is heavily dependent on the enthusiasm of head teachers, principals and school administrators.  An integral part of the success of such initiatives has been the design and use of appropriate Educational Management Information Systems (EMISs) that provide for digital collection, processing, analysis and reporting of school data.

Assessment

It is important to differentiate between the use of ICTs for formative and summative assessment

  • ICTs in formative assessment Many of the platforms and content delivery mechanisms through ICTs described above also contain quizzes and tests that can provide an important element of formative assessment for children.  Examples include:
  • ICTS in summative assessment ICTs are also increasingly being used for summative assessment, especially since more sophisticated systems are now available that enable securer communications and reduce the ability of students to cheat.

Access to the potential benefits of ICTs in education in low-resource environments

1Providing ICT for education connectivity and content in low-resource environments remains challenging.  The following examples illustrate some of the ways in which infrastructure, devices and content have been made available in these circumstances.

 

This is the first of a series of short summaries of aspects of the use of ICTs in children’s education across the world based on my work for UNICEF (the second is on Why we don’t really know very much about the influence of ICTs on learning and education).  I must stress that these contain my own opinions, and do not in any way reflect official UNICEF policy or practice.  I very much hope that they will be of use and interest to practitioners in the field.

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Filed under Education, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, Uncategorized

“The future of learning and technology in deprived contexts”: a report for Save the Children International


Save coverIt was an enormous privilege to work with David Hollow, Meghan Brugha and Mark Weber last year on a report for Save the Children International about the future of learning and technology in deprived contexts.  I am delighted that this has now been published in a slightly abridged version (available online here), and this post provides a short overview of our approach and our main findings.  The report looks forward to 2020 and 2025, and addresses three main issues;

  • the future of basic education,
  • ICT use in deprived locations, and
  • the use of ICTs in primary school learning, especially in deprived contexts

Method and approach

The report was based on: a detailed review of the literature; interviews with 32 leading authorities with direct experience of the use of technology in education, especially in low-income and crisis affected areas; a workshop that brought together 29 practitioners and academics from 9 countries working at the interface between technology and education to seek consensus as to the most likely scenarios that will emerge over the next decade; consultations with 22 Save the Children staff from 12 countries to ensure that their experiences were included in the report, and to validate our emergent findings; and our experiences of implementing and reviewing ICT for education activities across the world over the last 20 years.

Nine likely observations about basic education by 2025

Children 2We concluded that nine broad changes in basic education are likely to be apparent by 2025:

  • The pace of change in education is likely to remain slow in most countries
  • There will be increased diversity and inequality in learning practices and opportunities
  • Advocacy about the importance of qualified teachers will increase
  • There will also be increased advocacy about the need for fundamental curriculum and pedagogical change
  • The diversity of content provision will increase
  • There will be greater emphasis on non-formal and life-long learning
  • Holistic approaches to learning will become increasingly common
  • The private sector will play an increasing role in the delivery of education
  • The use of technology will be all-pervasive.

Eight generalisations about ICTs in 2025

Predicting the future of technology is always challenging, but there was general agreement amongst those we consulted that the following eight things are likely:

  • ICTs will become increasingly all-pervasive in human life
  • ICTs and their benefits will be increasingly unequally distributed
  • Digital technologies will become increasingly mobile, and newer types of mobile digital communication will be created
  • The costs of devices and connectivity will continue to decline
  • There will be a dramatic expansion in the production and use of large amounts of data, especially with the advent of the Internet of Things
  • There will be considerable increase in the personalisation of ICTs
  • Major global corporations, both in China and the USA, will play an ever more controlling role

ICT use in basic education in deprived locations

Drawing on both of the above sets of conclusions the main part of our report explores the implications for how ICTs will be used in basic education in deprived locations in the future.

ICTs in education in 2025

  • Our most important prediction is that the use of ICTs in education will become very much more diverse by 2025
  • There will be changes to the school systems of many countries that will encourage greater use of technology in education
  • In 2025 teachers will remain fundamentally important in education systems still dominated by schools.  However, in the best systems their role will have changed from being that of providers of knowledge to being guides to help children learn to navigate the world of digital information
  • There will be a new mix of digital content and device provision. Existing trends suggest that there will be much more digital educational content available, but it seems likely that much less of it will actually be used effectively by learners
  • Advances in the range of AI and IoT technologies combined with the increased power of big data analytics will enable much more personalised and refined assessment of pupils
  • There will be important changes in the role of parents and communities enabled through new online resources. It seems possible that the increasing failure of education systems across the world by 2025 will lead to a greater emphasis on learning outside school and in informal contexts

Implications for ICT deployment in education in low-income and peripheral areas

Five likely trends for ICT deployment in education in low-income and peripheral areas are:

  • There will be an increase in innovative solutions for ICT use in deprived locations; the use of ICTs will  become much more widespread in remote communities
  • Device sharing is already widespread in locations where access to them is expensive or difficult, and it is likely that this will continue to be the case in 2025
  • In areas that remain without much digital connectivity or electricity in 2025, it is likely that multi-purpose learning hubs, especially if they are co-located with schools, could remain a valuable addition to the array of options for delivering effective education and learning
  • Downloading and caching of key educational content, especially bandwidth heavy video, in locations where there is good connectivity, and its subsequent use in a distant unconnected school is likely to remain an excellent way through which content, and indeed management of administrative processes, can be undertaken cheaply and effectively
  • Learning will be increasingly mobile, and more of it will occur outside schools.  Parents who occasionally visit distant towns will be able automatically to download relevant learning content on their devices, including educational games and videos for their children, and everyone in their households could then benefit from accessing such content back at home.

ICTs for education in crisis affected areas

We identified a further set of likely roles of ICTs for education specifically in short-term acute crises, and also in long term protracted crises

Short-term acute crises

  • Mobile technologies will increasingly enable children fleeing such crises to continue to participate in both formal and informal learning
  • Much more extensive use will be made of online resources  to provide counseling for many different groups of people, including children traumatised by disasters and war
  • Online resources will be available specifically to provide children in acute crises with additional information about any crisis in which they are caught up so that they will be better able to survive
  • It is likely that by 2025 numerous different ICT-enhanced school-in-a-box solutions, combining connectivity, electricity, devices and content, will be available that can be set up quickly and effectively wherever in the world there is a need.
  • There will be much greater use of mobile phones by refugees to find out information about entering other countries, and what they need to know about the different cultures and ways of life there in order to survive

Long-term protracted crises

  • Many more digital community and learning centres will be created to provide online resources in refugee camps, where the ICT connectivity can also be used for a wide range of other purposes, including delivery of telemedicine and health training
  • Digital content, especially the use of video in multiple languages, accessible through robust child-friendly devices, can prove to be very valuable in such contexts to help create hybrid cultures of learning even where there is not Internet connectivity

Risks associated with digital learning in low-income and crisis-affected locations

While ICTs offer enormous potential for enhancing the delivery of appropriate learning for deprived children in marginalised areas, there are important risks that also need to be considered. These include

  • There is  an urgent need for all ICT initiatives, both in schools and more widely in community learning initiatives, to prioritise the safeguarding of children and the secure management of all information about children
  • A second concern that many have about children using ICTs, and especially the internet, is that of Internet addiction, whereby lives are ruined by causing neurological complications, psychological disturbances, and social problems
  • Third, many schools across the world, in both economically rich and poor countries alike, prohibit the use of mobile devices in school classrooms because they are seen as being disruptive, although other concerns over cheating, health and bullying are also often cited

These problems, though, do not mean that children should be prevented from accessing the Internet or using ICTs.  As discussed above, ICTs can provide very valuable learning experiences and indeed enjoyment for children, and any risks need to be weighed up against the overwhelming benefits that can accrue from using digital technologies.  The critical need is to ensure that children, parents and communities are indeed all aware of the threats that exist, and that action is taken by governments (both national and local), companies, schools and individuals to address them.

Our report concluded with a series of specific recommendations for Save the Children at both the policy and programme levels.

 

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Sexual harassment though mobile devices in the Caribbean


St Lucia smallMy earlier research with colleagues in Islamabad indicated very high levels of sexual harassment in Pakistan using mobile phones, both in traditional ways for calls and texts, and also through access to online social media.  Evidence from other parts of the world also suggests that similar high levels are to be found in many countries with different cultural backgrounds and social structures,  However, there have been very few cross-cultural comparisons using the same methodology.  Together with Dr. Bushra Hassan from Pakistan, we are therefore using a similar online survey instrument to explore perceptions and experiences of the use of mobile devices in the Caribbean and in India (Hindi; English).

Digicel 3

Despite the support of more than 50 organisations and individuals across the Caribbean, for which many thanks are due, responses to the survey have been lower than we had hoped.  However, we are reporting our preliminary findings here in part to encourage further responses to the survey that will then enable us to undertake a more rigorous statistical analysis of the data.

Key findings include the following:

Perceptions of sexual harassment through mobile devices in the Caribbean

  • More than half of the sample think that all types of harassment are common in the Caribbean.  Sexual harassment, though, is the most common type of harassment, and 47% of the sample considered it to be very frequent
  • Women are perceived to be harassed much more than men, although men are also harassed; 46% of the sample considered that women were very frequently harassed through their mobile devices.
  • The most common reasons for sexual harassment are considered to be because social factors encourage it and it is a way of controlling someone
  • Messaging apps and social media are perceived as being the main ways through which people are sexually harassed through their mobile devices, although phone calls and text messages are also common.
  • A wide range of people are seen as  being responsible for sexual harassment, including strangers and people in positions of responsibility.  However, the most common perpetrators are perceived as being a former partner, someone known to the person other than a family member, and a current partner.
  •  In the Caribbean, when a man is sexually harassed 40% of the sample think a women is usually to blame, and 36% think a man is usually to blame.  When a woman is sexually harassed, 74% of respondents thought that a man was usually to blame and 36% thought another woman was usually to blame.  A major difference between Pakistan and the Caribbean is that when a woman was harassed through her mobile device in Pakistan, 54% of the sample thought that she was sometimes or always to blame, whereas only 29% of the Caribbean sample thought that the woman being harassed was to blame.
  • Another striking difference between Pakistan and the Caribbean was in the impact of such harassment.  In the Caribbean, 62% of the sample claimed to know someone who had suffered depression as a result of sexual harassment through a mobile device, but only 13% knew someone who had committed suicide, and only 2% someone who had been killed because of honour.  In Pakistan 53% of respondents claimed that they knew someone personally who had tried to commit suicide as a result of sexual harassment through their mobile devices, and a shocking 52% of respondents claimed to know someone who had been killed because of a loss of honour as a result of sexual harassment through mobile devices.

Experiences of sexual harassment through mobile devices in the Caribbean

  • Around 44% of the Caribbean sample said that they had been sexually harassed through their mobile devices (and 92% of these were women), and their experiences were rather different from the perceptions of harassment noted above.
  • In reality only 27% of these people were harassed frequently or very frequently by a former partner, whereas 42% were frequently or very frequently harassed by someone known to them other than a family member, and 46% frequently or very frequently by a stranger.
  • It is also interesting that many people keep silent about their harassment; 43% sometimes or always keep silent.  When they do tell people about it, it is nearly always with friends rather than family or people in authority.
  • Interestingly, respondents who had been sexually harassed in the Caribbean seemed to have more robust reactions than did those in Pakistan, who often felt guilty or ashamed.  In the Caribbean, 67% said that they had never felt guilty, but 60% said that that sometimes or always felt stressed by it, 76% said that they sometimes or always felt angry, and 71% sometimes or always developed mistrust of others
  • There were fascinating and contrasting views about whether sexual harassment was worse when done in person or through a mobile device.  Two examples of comments from respondents reflect this difference:
    • “Being harassed through my mobile devices is worse in my experience because it has always been by people that I know. Harassment from a stranger has never hurt as much or made me as fearful as harassment from people that I know. The harassment that I have experienced via mobile devices has also been much more explicit and violent than what I have experienced in other ways”.
    • “I feel worse when the sexual harassment is done in person. Mobile I can hide and ignore, while in person I feel stripped and ashamed and uncomfortable and become self conscious”

Lime-2These are some of the headline findings of our research, but we need many more responses to be able to undertake appropriate statistical analysis of the results that will help us to dig beneath the surface and explain why some of these patterns exist.  The highest levels of responses have been from Guyana, the Cayman Islands and Trinidad and Tobago, and so we would particularly encourage responses from other parts of the region.  We are also very aware that mobile devices are just one of the ways through which sexual harassment exists.  However, it is an additional and very prevalent means, and we need to be aware of the extent that it is used to cause misery and oppression.

If you have not already done so, please complete the survey at https://rhul.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/sexual-harassment-through-mobiles-in-the-caribbean and encourage others to do so as well.  Thanks very much!

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EQUALS Research Group Meeting in Macau


EQUALS 5is a global initiative committed to achieving gender equality in the digital age.  Its founding partners are the ITU, UN Women, UNU Computing and Society (UNU-CS) institute, the International Trade Centre, and the GSMA, and it has been a real privilege to work with colleagues from these organisations and other partners over the last 18 months to try to help forge this partnership to reduce the inequalities between men and women in the digital age.   There are three partner Coalitions within EQUALS: for Skills (led by GIZ and UNESCO); Access (led by the GSMA); and Leadership (led by the ITC).  These are supported by a Research Group, led by the UNU-CS. The picture above shows the first Principals meeting held in September 2017 at the edges of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Despite all of the efforts to achieve increasing female participation in STEM subjects, in employment and leadership positions in the ICT sector, and in the use of ICTs to help towards women’s empowerment, most of the indicators show that gender digital inequality is increasing.  At the broadest level, this means that most of the initiatives undertaken to date to reduce these inequalities have failed.  Business as usual is therefore not an option, and the EQUALS partnership is intended to encourage committed partners to work together in new ways, and on new initiatives, to help deliver Sustainable Development Goal 5,  to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. 

The first face-to-face physical (rather than virtual) meeting of the Research Group was convened by the UNU-CS in Macau from 5th-6th December (official press release), and it was great that both Liz Quaglia and I were able to represent the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D (at Royal Holloway, University of London) at this meeting, which was attended by researchers and policymakers from 21 universities and organizations around the world. This meeting established the group’s research agenda, drafted its work plan for 2018, and finalized the content and schedule of its inaugural report due to be published in mid-2018.  In particular, it provided a good opportunity for researchers to help shape the three Coalitions’ thinking around gender and equality in the  areas of skills, access and leadership, and also to identify ways through which they could contribute new research to enable the coalitions to be evidence-led in their activities.

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Huge thanks are due to Araba Sey, who convened the meeting with amazing enthusiasm, insight and professionalism, and all of the other staff at UNU-CS who contributed so much to the meeting.  It was a great occasion when some of the world’s leading researchers in gender and ICTs could meet together, not only to discuss EQUALS, but also to explore other areas of related research, and to build the trust and openness necessary to increase gender equality both in the field of ICTs, and also through the ways that ICTs influence every aspect of people’s lives.  The BBQ and dancing on the last night ensured that memories of this event will last for a long time in everyone’s minds!

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“Reclaiming ICT4D” – conclusion to the first chapter


1.4I was re-reading the introductory chapter of my Reclaiming ICT4D (OUP, 2017) recently just to check that I still agreed with it!  Doing so made me think of posting its conclusion here, because this highlights five aspects that make it rather different in approach from many other books on ICTs and development.  So, here it is (original manuscript with emphasis added; and including Figure omitted from published book).  Hope this makes people want to read more!

“This chapter has summarized the theoretical and practical groundings for the account that follows, and has sought to make clear why this book focuses on five main aspects of the interface between ICTs and development.  First, it seeks explicitly to draw on both theoretical and practical understandings of the use of technology in development.  It deliberately seeks to build on insights from both theory and practice, and crosses boundaries between different stakeholder communities.  This is also expressed in its style and use of language, which consciously seeks to offer different ways of reflecting on these issues.

Second, the book is built on a belief that just describing the changes that are taking place, and how technology has been used in and for development is not enough.  We must understand the interests behind such occurrences if we are to change what is currently happening.  We must also adopt a normative stance, and be much more willing to say what should be rather than just what is.  It is no coincidence that technology is being used to drive economic growth forward as the expense of those who do not have access to it, or the knowledge or interest in how to use it.  This book thus has an avowedly practical intent to help poor and marginalized people gain benefits from the use of these technologies, and it does not shy away from making tough policy recommendations as to ways in which this can be achieved.

Third, it emphasizes that there are many different ways in which technology and development interact.  I have previously very much championed the notion of ICT for development (ICT4D), but now fear that this has been subverted to a situation where many stakeholders are using the idea of ‘development’ as a means to promulgate and propagate their own specific technologies, or what might be called ‘Development for ICT’ (D4ICT).  Hence, I wish to reclaim ICT4D from the clutches of D4ICT.  This requires us above all to focus primarily on the intended development outcomes rather than the technology.

To do this, it is very important that this book concentrates on both the positive and the negative, intended and unintended, consequences of the use of ICTs in development.  There has been far too much euphoric praise for the role of technology in development, and although the recent UNDP (2015) and World Bank (2016) reports go some way in pointing to the failures, they do not go anything like far enough in highlighting the darker side of technologies and particularly the Internet (although for a darker view of ICT in general see Lanier, 2011).  To be sure, ICTs have indeed transformed the lives of many poor people, often for the better, but they have not yet really structurally improved the lot of the poorest and most marginalized.

Finally, as I hope the above has shown, this book argues that development should not be focused on economic growth, nor about the modernising power of technology.  Rather, development is fundamentally a moral agenda.  ICT4D is about making difficult choices about what is right or wrong.  It is about having the courage to be normative, rather than just positive, and it holds on to the belief that we can still use technology truly to make the world a better place.”

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Participating in the e-Borneo Knowledge Fair 6 held in Ba’Kelalan, 25-27 October 2017


Far too many ICT4D initiative are thought up by the rich and privileged, often, but not always, with the intention of using technology to improve the lives of poor and marginalised peoples.  More often than not, well-intentioned researchers and academics in Europe and north America, or those living in major urban centres of economically poorer countries, try to develop new “solutions” that will help to eliminate poverty or deliver on some aspect of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the global elite.  Invariably, they have little understanding of the real needs of poor people or marginalised communities, and all too often such initiatives prove to be unsustainable once the initial funding for them has dissipated.

Some initiatives do, though, run counter to this all too familiar tale of woe.  One of these is the work of the Institute of Social Informatics and Technological Innovations at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, which has over many years sought to work with local communities in some of the most isolated areas of Sarawak.  This action research started almost 20 years ago with the creation of the e-Bario telecentre initiative in 1998. It was therefore a real privilege to be invited to give a keynote presentation at their 6th e-Borneo Knowledge Fair, held on the theme of community-based sustainability in Ba’Kelalan from 25-27 October (EBKF6).  The first e-Bario Knowledge Fair was held in 2007, and a decade on the change of name indicates a broadening of its focus beyond the village of Bario to be more inclusive of other initiatives across Borneo.

The central belief underlying these knowledge fairs has been the importance of sharing understandings between communities and researchers in co-creating new knowledge.  In a fundamental reversal of the normal conference format, where participants usually meet in major cities of the world, the e-Bario and now e-Borneo Knowledge Fairs have been held in isolated rural communities, with participating academics being encouraged to learn as much from those living there as the latter do from the conference and workshop speakers.  To emphasise this difference, outside participants were encouraged this year to travel to Ba’Kelalan on a nine-hour journey along roads cut through the forests initially by logging companies.

The knowledge fair consisted mainly of a series of workshops that placed as much emphasis on the views of the inhabitants of Ba’Kelalan and other isolated communities in Malaysia as they did on the experiences and knowledge of outside academics.  Great credit is due to the Co-Chairs of EBKF6, Narayanan Kulathu Ramaiyer and Roger Harris, and their team, for having brought together an amazing group of people.  The pictures below hopefully capture something of the refreshing energy and excitement of these workshops (link here to the official video).  Many things impressed me about them, not least the commitment of all involved to work together collaboratively to focus on delivering solutions to the needs and wants of people living in these very isolated communities, and ensuring that “development” does not irrevocably damage the essential elements of life that they wish  to maintain.  It was also very impressive to see three community healthworkers present, who were offering a free service of health checks (blood pressure and blood sugar levels) for those participating.

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The most important feature of the Sixth e-Borneo Knowledge Fair for me was that it was all about working with isolated communities rather than for them.  I came away  I am sure very much more enriched by the experience than will other participants have been by my keynote!  For those interested in what I had to say, though, the slides from my keynote are available here: Safeguarding the interests of the marginalised: rhetoric and reality of global ICT4D initiatives designed to deliver the SDGs.

Thanks again to everyone involved for making this such a special event!

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Reflections on ICTs, the SDGs and innovation adoption


The contrast between attending a series of side events around the UN General Assembly in New York immediately following a marvellous two weeks in India has made me reflect again on the rhetoric and reality of using ICTs for development, especially in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

Contrast

My latest book, Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (OUP, 2017) provides an overview of the interests underlying the use of ICTs for “development”, and what needs to be done so that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed benefit from ICTs.  However, working in India, and then listening to the rhetoric of the rich and famous in New York makes me wonder whether I was sufficiently vehement in what I wrote in that book.  It also makes me return to thinking about the research I did 30 years ago on innovation adoption by farmers.  This convinced me that Rogers’ well accepted theoretical arguments around innovation adoption, the S-shaped curve (see below), and the classification of people into categories (innovators, early adopters, really majority, late majority and laggards) is fundamentally flawed.

Rogers

There was very widespread agreement amongst the world’s leaders meeting in New York last week – and most other people as well – that ICTs can contribute very significantly to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that these will eliminate poverty.  The challenge, according to them, is how to connect the “next billion” to the Internet (mobile broadband), or in Rogers’ terminology the “late majority”.  As I have argued elsewhere, this will actually further increase global inequality, and most attention should instead be paid  to connecting the “first” (because they are most important) billion, or what Rogers termed the “laggards”.

The interests underlying connecting the next billion

The global focus on rolling out broadband to deliver the SDGs (even if that was possible) is not primarily in the interest of the world’s poorest people.  Instead it is mainly driven by:

  • private sector corporations and companies, from ISPs and mobile operators to the powerful multi-service giants such as Facebook and Google, who are all primarily interested in expanding their markets and profits;
  • national governments, eager to reduce costs through the use of digital technologies (although this is often a flawed assumption), as well as to control  “their” citizens;
  • UN agencies, keen to have a role to play in delivering the SDGS; and
  • NGOs, wanting to publicise their work more widely, and continue to receive project funding for their ICT-based initiatives.

These have little to do with the real interests and needs of the poorest and most marginalised.  The language of global corporations and governments is nearly always about providing access and creating demand for digital services.  But why should poor people necessarily want to go online?

Reasons not to be online…

Masai welcomeI recall a wonderful conversation a couple of years ago with a Maasai chief in Tanzania. He was speaking with a group of techies about the use of mobile devices, and they were trying to persuade him of the value of mobile phones, even just to call his friends in a village the other side of the hills.  He, wisely, remained unconvinced.  For him, walking across the hills, enjoying the landscape, spending time experiencing the physicality of nature, and just thinking about life, were a crucial part of going to, and speaking with, his friend in the next village.

For the wise poor and marginalised, there are many reasons for not being connected:

  • they remain outside a world where increasingly all human actions are monetised by  profit seeking corporations who use digital technologies to track their users and generate profit from selling such information;
  • they remain free from the prying eyes of governments, whose actions may not be in their interests;
  • there is little of interest to them in solving their real needs on the Internet;
  • they do not have to spend large amounts of their very limited cash on paying for digital services that they do not really need;
  • they do not suffer from the increasing amount of online abuse and harassment from trolls and others seeking to make them suffer;
  • their small amounts of cash are not subject to online theft from hackers of mobile money systems;
  • they do not become entrapped in a social media world, where every tweet or blog can adversely influence  their thoughts and senses of well-being;
  • they do not suffer from endless messages or e-mails, the senders of which increasingly expect an immediate response; and
  • they can enjoy being truly human in the analogue physical world (of all the senses), rather than trading this for the synthetic, and much less adequate digital virtual world (of mainly the two senses of sight and sound).

To be sure, there are many advantages of being connected, but the above list (and there are numerous other reasons that could be added) emphasises that there are also many negative aspects of Internet use, especially for the poor and marginalised.

The poor are not ignorant laggards who need to be convinced to go online…

One of the fundamental flaws of the widely accepted innovation adoption model proposed by Rogers is that it classifies people into “heroic” innovators and “ignorant” laggards; it is something about the people that influences whether or not they adopt an innovation, such as mobile broadband.  Such a view is held by many of those who seek to promote the global roll-out of the Internet: those who use the latest technologies are seen as being wise, whereas those who do not are seen as being lazy, ignorant laggards.

Rogers’ formulation is fundamentally problematic because it suggests that it is something about the people themselves that determine whether or not they are leaders or laggards.  This largely ignores the structural factors that determine whether people adopt something new.  With the adoption of agricultural innovations, for example, many poor people act perfectly rationally, and choose the option that they consider suits them best.  Poor people often make very rational, wise decisions not to adopt an innovation, often because the innovation increases the risks of crop failure, and they cannot afford this risk.  Moreover, if they do not have access to innovations it is scarcely surprising that they do not adopt them; the spatial distribution of outlets for herbicides, hybrid seeds or inorganic fertilizers is the main factor influencing whether people adopt them, rather than something about their propensity to innovate.  In the ICT sector, it is hardly surprising that people living in areas without electricity, let alone connectivity, do not see the need to have the latest generation of smartphone connected to the Internet.

If progress is to be made in helping poor and marginalised people benefit from the Internet, it is essential to do away with this flawed model of innovation adoption, and understand instead the structural factors and interests underlying why wise poor people, who know the contexts of their poverty very well, do not choose to adopt such technologies.  The rich elites of the world could begin by trying to understand the real conditions of poverty, rather than simply believing that ICTs can eliminate poverty through the SDGs.

Development in the interests of the poor

children 2ICTs will never deliver on reducing inequalities in the world unless there is a fundamental sea-change in the attitudes of those leading the global private sector corporations that currently shape the world of the Internet.  It is perfectly logical for them to sign up to the SDGs formulated by the UN system, and to seek to show that expanding their digital empires will necessarily deliver the SDGs.  This is a powerful additional weapon in their armoury of market expansion and profit generation.  The problem is that these agendas will continue to increase inequality, and as yet remarkably little attention has been paid to how ICTs might actually help deliver SDG10.  Until corporations and governments really treat the link between ICTs and inequality seriously, peoples of the world will become every more divided, and if poverty is defined in a relative sense then poverty will actually increase rather than decrease as a result of roll out of the Internet.

 

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